This weekend sees the opening of an exhibition which tells the story of Will Holden and his brave battle with cancer. 

Photographed by friend of Gef Catharine Devine, the exhibition details Will’s story of going from being a healthy 27-year-old fitness instructor to fighting for his life, to embracing his story with a positive outlook and a smile.

Will first developed symptoms for hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that develops in the lymph system, right back at the beginning of the pandemic when lockdown restrictions made seeing a doctor and being diagnosed especially difficult. 

He told Gef: ‘I want young people to be able to take my story and bring it forward to them. I was basically told by doctors for the first few months “oh it’s fine, you can come back in two weeks, I can’t feel anything, come back in two weeks”.

‘By that time it was December 2020 and then by the time they actually saw me, I had to ring up a month before my birthday to be seen and by then it was sticking out my neck, in photos you can see this shadow sticking out. They sent me for an ultrasound scan which came back inconclusive, someone said “I can’t see anything” and I had to say well you can feel it though can’t you.’

Having been sent back to his GP, Will had to ring doctors during lockdown on his birthday to demand further tests. He said: ‘By then my throat was closing up, I was struggling to swallow food and I had cramps in my throat and by the time I was seen properly, it was stage four cancer.’

Fortunately the type of cancer Will had is very treatable, but if the delays had gone on the lump itself would likely have proved fatal as it limited his breathing. During this period he was helped by MHKs Claire Christian and then DHSC Minister David Ashford, as well as his GP in Peel, Dr Ellis, who he praised for their help in pushing for doctors to refer Will to get the treatment in Liverpool that would save his life.

PICC Lining

Part of this treatment saw Will treated using a PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) line. This sounds grim, but Will said he wanted to use his experience to reassure others that they may sound unpleasant, but they aren’t anything to be afraid of.

He said: ‘I was a bit scared of it, but as soon as it was in, it was fine. They insert it into a vein and it goes round and stops in one of the thicker ventricles of the heart and that’s where they can enter the chemotherapy without damaging your smaller veins. It goes straight into the heart and it gets pumped around your system really quickly, it’s fantastic. They can also use it to get blood out of you, instead of having to jab you with needles all the time.’

A Beaming Smile

What stands out the most about Will is that while he clearly has been through a rough time, he tells his story almost like a stand up comedian building up to a big punchline, almost smiling and making light of what must’ve been some dark days. 

Even with the delay in being diagnosed, he still just wants to use his story to encourage others to think about their  told Gef: ‘I don’t want to blame anyone or throw a spanner in the mix, you can’t on the island anyway, don’t want to upset anyone too much. But I was asked by a couple of GPs “what can I do for my patients?” and I’d say just listen to young people.

‘I’m quite old now, I’m 28 and I’m quite eloquent, but for people who aren’t, especially young men who are crap with articulating what they are feeling or thinking across to other people, I feel like doctors and GPs need to allow them more time to open up because men have a habit of closing up. Not all men obviously but they need to help them open up and probe a little bit to find out more information about it, after all it could save their life.’

While Will admits he wasn’t the happiest of patients to begin with, he said his attitude changed to a point where he was ‘probably insufferable’ for being OTT positive. He said: ‘That, what would be an irritating mindset to most people, really helped me get through it and the tiniest thing everyday was just something extra, like the cat coming up to me, it made me feel good and that’s what I feel helped me through the cancer treatment and I’ve taken that with me.’

The Exhibition

Speaking about Will’s outlook, photographer Catherine said: ‘I think I took that for the photos, trying to put the positive light on Will’s story. His attitude and gratitude really stuck with me. Some of the photos can be quite dark, but we wanted them to be an inspiration and to put the shine on Will and say he’s gone through this.’

While Catherine has been behind the camera, Will has written some of the editorial to go with the exhibition which, in typical style, he said had been a major boost for him as it allowed him to return to something he enjoyed after chemo. 

The exhibition, supported by the Isle of Man Arts Council, is in the upper gallery in the Villa Marina, it opens on Saturday May 14 until Sunday July 31. To launch the exhibition, a special opening is being held on Saturday evening from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, where you can have a look at the photography, read some of Will’s words and even chat to him and Catharine about their time working together. 

Let’s Embarrass Catharine

Catharine spent some time working at Gef in the build up to the 2021 General Election, with many of her pictures still being used on our artwork. She was a real delight in the office and someone who we could see was obviously a really talented photographer and, at risk of making her go bright red, we do just want to say we’re so proud to see her go from not being sure what she wanted to do next to staging her own exhibition. Love you Cat.